John, I am glad to hear that you are “pleasantly, uncomplicatedly, happily curious” about how Mad Men will end. We are talking about characters who indulge in Old Testament levels of pettiness and yet speak in a stagey way that sounds nothing like actual humans. So it says something that they have managed to elicit in you a grandfatherly affection of a kind you might hear about, say, the cast of Cheers. I do not feel that way. I am in anxious parent mode, not so much about whether Don will keep his job at the newly re-formed SC&P, or whether Peggy will get a second date with the handyman, or whether Joan will get rich, or whether Betty will sabotage her husband’s campaign, or whether Sally will kiss the right boy, or whether Bert’s ghost will make it on Broadway. What worries me is how director Matt Weiner will get out of the complicated dramatic binds he’s put himself in and wrap up this epic show in a way that satisfies us and him.
We last left Don on a high note. Ten whole months ago, when the first half of the final season ended, Don was reinstated at the firm thanks to some last minute maneuvering by Roger Sterling. He decides, definitively, not to join Megan in L.A. and to rededicate himself to his professional genius. He seems calm, confident, self-aware. Julia, you called it a “joyful, pleasurable, hopeful” episode. But it is also possibly dramatically inert. Over the last couple of seasons Mad Men fans seemed to lose patience with morose, wandering Don. A Don without swagger is a Don that grates. But a Zen, contented Don might put us to sleep. It would be like Ted Chaough without the midlife crisis. And a Ted type, while a necessary healthy counterpoint to Don, is not dark enough to be our hero.
So where does Weiner take him? When I interviewed him a year ago for the Atlantic, he made it clear that he was not a fan of tidy redemptive endings. He was somewhat disdainful of Breaking Bad for taking the easy way out, for turning Walter White into “not the bad guy by killing all the really bad guys and providing for his family.” This indicates that Don will probably not stay on the straight path to enlightenment, but nor can he take the deep dive into drunken squalor we’ve already seen a couple of times before. My guess is that he’ll have Don land somewhere between saintly and debauched, perhaps on the shaky but plot-rich terrain of a louche middle-age man who is “self-actualized” in a glib ’70s way but not actually transformed by his self-knowledge—at least for the first few episodes.
John, you asked what I hoped would make a satisfying ending for our favorite career women (Peggy, Joan). I realized only when reading your question that the arc of Peggy’s career has gotten mixed up in my head with Hillary Clinton’s. They both have, now and again, suffered the worst of the woman-workplace problem—a likability gap, a confidence gap, being overshadowed by a domineering man, and a tendency to harbor secrets, which over time, makes them brittle and paranoid. Now, on the eve of their final chapter, I wish them both the same thing: to make peace with their vulnerabilities. We got a hint of that from Peggy in the first half of the final season, when the neighbor boy she’d improbably befriended told her he was moving, and she reacted in a surprisingly maternal way. In the first half of the season, she and Don tenderly bonded over a very painful confession. “I never did anything. I don’t have anyone,” Don told her, and she could empathize. Maybe she’ll figure out a way to measure her worth that she can live with.
John, you noted how much your life has changed since this show premiered. For me, what’s striking is how the actors have moved on. It’s hard for me now to look at January Jones, who plays Betty, and not see her as Melissa on The Last Man on Earth, the sweet, wry girlfriend of Todd, played by Mel Rodriguez, who is cast in the Fox comedy as the physical opposite of Jon Hamm. Same with Elisabeth Moss, who has had a robust career in movies and on Broadway since the show first aired. In fact, in this New York Times story she sounds as if she barely remembers Peggy. (“I didn’t realize Peggy was so different from me,” she said upon watching the first episode at a premiere party.) And then of course Hamm, as Richard Wayne Gary Wayne on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. With these other modern characters floating around in my head, it’s an effort to keep myself quarantined in the right decade.
We’ve gotten clues that a major theme will be aging, maybe not so gracefully. “For Don, it’s increasingly about getting older and becoming irrelevant in an industry that continues to put a very high value on relevancy and currentness and cool,” Hamm told the Times. For Don, and for Matt Weiner, who also talked to me about what it’s like to be 40 and realize you keep running into the same types of people—and who has yet to announce what current, cool project he will do after Mad Men to keep himself relevant.
Julia, what minor characters are you looking forward to seeing again? And, concerning the aesthetics of Roger Sterling, what do you think they mean by “epic mustache”?
This is the way it ends,